Friday, July 21, 2006

On "Unspoken Assumptions" In Writing

The late great Alice Sheldon (a.k.a. "James Tiptree Jr.") wrote this observation about how male writers tend to describe reality with themselves as point-of-reference: "Impenetrable Swamps, Loyal Dogs, Short Women". Read the whole text!

"Consider how odd it would be if all we knew about elephants had been written by elephants. Would we recognise one? What elephant author would describe — or perhaps even perceive — the features which are common to all elephants?

"We would find ourselves detecting these from indirect clues; for instance, elephant-naturalists would surely tell us that all other animals suffer from noselessness, which obliges them to use their paws in an unnatural way."

Think about it when you write, whatever your gender may be. Are you putting unspoken assumptions into your prose?
Are forests always supposed to be "penetrated"?
Are dogs always supposed to be "loyal"(i.e. obedient)? "Loyalty" implies the dog is loyal to someone. Who?
What constitutes a "short" woman? (Relative to what?)

OK, if the narrator is a 7-foot Ethiopian native and casually thinks the visiting Japanese tourist is short, that makes perfect sense within the context of the story.
But the writer shouldn't automatically assume that his/her reference point always makes sense in the context of the narrative.

Another example (my favorite): In one of Jean M. Auel's Stone Age novels, one of the characters talk about someone being depressed. Depressed? 40,000 years ago? The mere word carries assumptions about modern psychology, models of the human mind and theories which seem a tad out of place in the story's Neolithic, pre-literate context.

It can be difficult to picture yourself as being someone else, to describe someone else's point-of-view. It may even require that you question some (or all) of your assumptions about yourself.
But if you can't, your writing will always be limited to a predictable, repetitive set of ideas and prejudices - invisible to you, but obvious to everyone who reads your prose.


Lee said...

Yes, good point. And so much of fiction is just recycled second-hand, from cliched metaphors right through to supposed insights. Am I guilty of this? Hell, of course I am, though I keep trying to be aware of it.

Kiss and Tell said...

Wow. A good author writes about stuff that the reader can recognize as been-there-done-that, but a great writer writes about the things that the reader recognize as a that's-so-true-but-I-never-thought-of-that-before kind of way. Do you get what i mean? I had a that's-so-true... moment here.

A.R.Yngve said...

Yeah, Tiptree had that amazing talent.